In the messy sausage-making process of drafting federal legislation, sometimes items make it into the language of a bill without drawing much public attention.
One such item is the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which is included in the massive tax overhaul working its way through Congress, and which looks increasingly likely to become law.
For 63 years the Johnson Amendment has bolstered the wall of separation between church and state by forbidding nonprofit religious institutions from endorsing political candidates or engaging in partisan political activity. This is a sensible rule, given the tax-exempt status of those institutions and the lack of transparency about donations.
Segments of the religious right, however, have long chafed under this restriction, saying it interferes with their right of free speech. Now, with the power in Washington having shifted in their direction, their wish may come true: The Johnson Amendment, named after then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, could become history.
This would be an anti-democratic travesty, and we strongly oppose the repeal.
We are not alone in this view. As our story reveals, 55 Jewish nonprofits and religious institutions recently wrote an open letter condemning repeal of the Johnson Amendment. They, like the local Jewish religious leaders also quoted in the article, understand that once the church-state wall is breached, the First Amendment is threatened.
American elections are already under threat from big money. The Supreme Court’s appalling 2010 Citizens United decision, which essentially labeled money as speech, opened the door to all kinds of dark money flooding into our elections.
Without the protections of the Johnson Amendment, a new and potentially poisonous source of big money will surely begin influencing campaigns, and not in a good way.
Also threatened would be the religious mission of houses of worship. As one local rabbi put it, people come to synagogue to pray and find spiritual fulfillment in community. Introducing partisan politics into the mix would be divisive and, ultimately, destructive.
While it’s fair to debate the wisdom of granting churches, synagogues and other houses of worship tax-exempt status, on the whole the status quo has been beneficial to the health of America’s religious life.
Repeal of the Johnson Amendment undermines that health. We must do what we can to keep naked partisan politics off the pulpit and away from the bimah. It’s good for democracy, and good for our souls.